Driven by a wish to do good for society, Yoko Ono (1933, Tokyo, Japan) creates works—ideas, scores, performances, sculptures, installations, music—that address the effect of ideas on the actions of human beings, allowing the viewer to see things in a new light.
Yoko Ono’s new work Arising was presented at the 55th Venice Biennale at Palazzo Bembo, as part of the exhibition “PERSONAL STRUCTURES” and it will soon be published with the Global Art Affairs Foundation as a limited edition book titled Yoko Ono: Arising. On 9 June 2013, Ono visited Palazzo Bembo, where she did an interview with Karlyn De Jongh and Sarah Gold.
Sarah Gold: Yoko Ono, it is a great honour to be sitting here with you, and to have your work Arising in our exhibition “PERSONAL STRUCTURES.” I think this work is an amazing opportunity for women to express their experiences, and this seems to be confirmed when considering the response that we have gotten already: women from all over the world have been sending letters and emails. Also in the exhibition itself, women are contributing by sitting down and writing their stories behind the desk that you placed here in Palazzo Bembo. It seems to help them to express their experiences, to share their stories. And it seems to open doors for other women who did not participate in your work, too.
Yoko Ono: I am very, very happy that my work is presented here in this “PERSONAL STRUCTURES” exhibition. I think it is always important that we reach other women. After I did this, I thought, “Did I forget about men?” But let’s do women first, because women have really been in trouble for over 2000 years. All that time, there was a male society. So, we just have to hear what women had to go through. I think it is very interesting to hear their stories and did not expect it would open such a big door. Now this door is open! And there are so many women who wanted to say something, and they are coming here to Palazzo Bembo. It is a very big thing: it is as if the whole world of women is getting the opportunity to say something.
Some of my work is just asking people for conceptual participation, but many of the works ask people to physically participate. This is why it is interesting to me that these women are talking to me and there is a big exchange. I hope that this is going to help the world a little. It is also Interesting, I thought we would be needing only about twenty letters from women.
Karlyn De Jongh: The response has been overwhelming. You got many, many more letters!
YO: Yes! As soon as we opened the website (www.imaginepowerarising.com), 84 women immediately came with their story. I thought, “What am I going to do?” I am going to treasure each one of them and we are going to make a book out of it as a record of the women’s right in our society.
KDJ: Yoko, in this work Arising that you are presenting here at the 2013 Venice Biennale, in “PERSONAL STRUCTURES,” you have also asked women to send or give a photo of their eyes. Why do you wish to connect the visual image of the person with their story? And why did you choose to ask only for a photo of their eyes?
YO: I am so glad that you ask that question. The reason is because many women are in danger of speaking out. We have to protect them. We cannot have a full face, because maybe they will be attacked again. So, I just wanted something from them—a part of the face—so that we can connect with that woman. When I saw some of the eyes, it was remarkable to see how destroyed some of the eyes are. Some of the eyes are really frightened or shocked. The things that these women went through are visible in their eyes. I think it worked. The fact that we cannot ask them to show their faces nor to spell their full names, is because of how our society is nowadays. That is how much we are threatened and how we are scared. We are human beings, so naturally we are going to be scared and that is all right. We have to protect each other.
SG: Your work is called Arising. What does the title mean to you?
YO: We, women, are now rising together. Arising expresses the rising of our spirits.
KDJ: Arising is now presented in Venice, a city that is visited by tens of thousands of people every day. Why did you choose Venice as the location for showing this work?
YO: It is not about choosing the location. It happened. Many of my works have some kind of strong faith that I did not create. It just came to me and I really appreciate that. I found out that it is very difficult to do something here, with the burning of the silicone female bodies. “Did I make a mistake?” I thought. No! When you see the work and the video, you see that it was totally important that it was done here in Venice.
The sound that you can hear in the video is my voice, from my 1996 record Rising. The recording is approximately 14 minutes in length, but it is like that from beginning to end—no editing, nothing. I created that work a long time before this work ARISING. It just fits very well.
SG: What was for you the relation between Arising and your record Rising? Why do you think the two works fit so well together?
YO: Rising was telling all people that it is time for us to rise and fight for our rights. But in the process of fighting together, women are still being treated separately in an inhuman way. It weakens the power of men and women all together. I hope Arising will wake up Women Power, and make us, men and women, heal together.
It was very interesting, the way this record was created. I was about to do a recording session with my son and my son’s friends. At that time, my son was a teenager. He and his friends were just impossible people. They came to my recording session and I thought, “What am I going to do? Can I trust them with playing my work?” I thought I would just do one harmony and said, “Just play that from beginning to end.” It just went “whooom!” like that. No editing, no rehearsal.
I think it is important that I did it, because it is the voice of a woman who went through a lot of pain, which was me. The reason why I created such a vocal—many people disliked it, so I might as well get a credit for it—was because when I was a young girl, my mother told me: “Never go near the servants’ room, because they are talking about things you do not want to know.” Of course, I wanted to go there! I sneaked up and heard them speak, “Did you know that my aunt just had a baby? And having a baby is a very strange thing, because she was going, “whoa, whoa, whoaaa!”.” I thought, “Hmm, this is scary!” and ran back to my room. I never forgot that.
Later I realised that in society, woman are liked for being pretty and making pretty sounds and singing pretty songs. Those are the ones that sell the most, not someone who sings “whoaaa!” If you can’t sell it, what are you going to do?
I thought, I have to tell the world that women are not just pretty, but they created the human race. We brought the children into this world. And that is a very difficult act. It is not very often spoken about, but giving birth is a very dangerous thing to do. Many women die from it. It is a very important and dangerous thing and we all have to go through it. It is not a pretty and happy thing at all. It is a very important and serious thing! It is even much more powerful than a huge earthquake. Each child that comes into this world is going to influence our society.
So, what are we doing when only showing the pretty side? The reason is that men cannot have babies. They do not want to know that the other sex can do that, in a way it is a competition between the people. They do not want to talk about it, not think about it. Men want to euphemise the situation, saying that it is such a beautiful thing and that women love to do it. Women love to do it? Let them do it! Then men will see that it is not that pleasant.
I learned all that and thought I should at least use some sounds that we, women, make. As soon as I sang, “Whooaaaa!” the teenagers stopped working and all went into the bathroom. Because they could not say they wanted to escape, so they just went to the bathroom. When we made the song, John said, “did you get that?” checking if the song was recorded. It was one of the rare moments that it was recorded.
This is the kind of thing that women go through and when you listen to that song, you will understand that it is your emotion. It is your experience that is turned into music.
KDJ: When we burnt the silicon bodies for your work, we went with a whole group of people to one of the islands in the Venetian Lagoon. There were also many men present. To burn these bodies, was a very strong experience for everybody I think, not only for the women that were there. It seemed to me that also for the men it was a strong experience.
YO: Yes, it would be unfair to say that men just like pretty voices. They are nobody without the presence of women. When you face them with this, then they start to understand. Now there are also what I call ‘new-age men': there are many men who are very understanding and they are also suffering because of that understanding. John was one of those men and he always said he felt lonely, because there were not many men around who understood it. He wished there to be a group of men to talk about it, because he felt very alone. Now there are many new-age men and that is great. When I am in New York and go to Central Park, I see many men pushing a baby car. Now this is a natural thing, nobody is surprised about it. But they do not know that when John did this, nobody did it. No man wanted to be seen with a baby car. I am very happy that now it is a normal thing. I thank John for being so courageous.
SG: Do you think that by addressing these themes in your work and at the same time asking people to participate in your works, that you contributed in educating our society?
YO: Yes, very much so. The more you participate, the more you make this a normal thing. It became normal that women are strong. It is ok to be strong. We were so scared of being strong and we made ourselves small, I made myself small. In China they for example had to make their feet very small. Women were suffering from it. Every night they cried. That is how bad it was. That is how bad the society was to women.
Now it is getting better and better, but we have to understand: we are not the only ones in a society. We also have to understand the suffering of the opposite sex. They have suffering too, you know. I started to learn about this, when I was reading a lot of books about WWI and WWII, for example. The books described how men’s faces were destroyed and how they lost their limbs. It was a terrible situation that men went through. Men have a different way of dealing with it. They are so macho that they do not want to complain. But we have to understand all the difficult situations that they have, which they cannot speak about because they are macho, but they are very lonely. We women make men lonely in that sense. So, this work Arising reaches out to men as well.
KDJ: I have the feeling that through the participation, in this work particularly, the women feel really part of it. They can share their thoughts, and maybe even share ‘your’ work. It seems almost as if ‘the group’ is making the work, rather than only you as an individual.
YO: Yes, this thing—participating and telling your story—is almost like a therapy. They can send in their stories of what they had to go through. It is like a therapy. However, it is better than therapy, because with a psychologist you can talk about your feelings and it is being taped. Your personal words are being taped by the psychologist and you have to pay for it. In my work, it is really just about saying it. I feel the power of the people.
KDJ: What is it that you hope for the future?
YO: Well, for the future, I am always hoping that we are able to create a better society and we are doing it. Some people are skeptical about it, because we still have war. Ok, but you know, the thing is that the world did not collapse. Maybe we are holding up the sky, but at least we are still ok. We no longer have the luxury to indulge in negative thinking, because this is becoming incredibly dangerous and complicated. If we want to survive as a human race, we have to start by being positive. Be positive first and then complain later.